Strangers and Friends

The dilemma was if or not to acknowledge my distinguished neighbor, to tell her that she was one of the greatest artists of our age; that I had been listening to her for years; that her recital in my remote hometown S some 15 years ago was the first piano recital I attended ; that it was probably also the starting point of my career as a lone concert-goer; that her art was part of my spiritual life, thus part of me.

In the end, I didn’t say anything. When I came back from the intermission, having to squeeze past her to my seat, I merely mumbled “excuse me”.  But in a brief two-second eye contact, there was this moment of “I know you know I know”. Later I had those questions in my conscience: “Did she expect me to acknowledge her openly? Was she relieved when I didn’t?”

The artist in question is the great pianist Angela Hewitt. She sat almost next to me in last week Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Finland-themed concert with cellist Anssi Kartunnen, soprano Karita Mattila and conductor Hannu Lintu who brought out the best of the orchestra.

Art, if anything, allows artists and their audience share intense personal feelings together. This is especially true between musicians and listeners in a live concert. But this personal communication, generally speaking, is confined to the sound of music flowing from the stage to the auditorium. Visual elements are restricted to the performance itself and concert etiquette. The only performance the audience participate, in most cases, is the applause and bravoing, an art in itself. As a rule, there is no verbal communication between musicians and audience on a personal level, unlike standing comedy.

But I couldn’t help observing Ms. Hewitt from time to time, especially during the performance of Ravel’s La valse: she tapped her fingers; when the music stopped, she gave a warm standing ovation to Mr. Lintu’s superb music-making. It was touching to see a great artist generously appreciating another as an anonymous audience member. When the applause subsided, Ms. Hewitt quickly disappeared into the exiting crowds.

Deep personal connections are often established impersonally. Art is a vehicle to solve individuals’ ambivalent desires to be known and to stay unknown. Art is the common ground of the public and the private. Art is the gateway between the sacred and the profane.

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